Faith in Faith

I have occasionally encountered bumper stickers on cars or little decorative hangings in living rooms that say, simply, “Believe,” and every time part of me shouts inwardly, “…in what?” It is akin to hearing the last note of a song that does not resolve properly, which leaves one in a frustrated anticipation of the proper final note.

Though it is often seemingly regarded as profound, as a command to “believe” it is utterly meaningless, being altogether devoid of a context that would allow one to decide in what to believe, since it is just as possible to believe, for instance, that lying is a virtue as it is to believe that it is a vice. It is precisely the type of decoration one would expect to see in a home inhabited by people who have embraced a postmodern worldview, in which “truth” is that which one fashions for himself. Postmodernism or relativism regards the act of merely believing, of having faith in anything, as a virtue, and it has no regard for discerning what corresponds to reality because “truth” is neither objective nor absolute. As long as one has a belief, whatever it may be (though presumably not the belief that postmodernism is false), one can be a good postmodernist. Faith, and not its object, is what counts, and in that sense postmodernists embrace faith in faith.

Something so vague and ambiguous is to be expected of people who consciously affirm a relativistic philosophy, but it is even more curious when it is displayed by Christians. A bumper sticker on a Christian’s car that only says, “Believe.”, achieves exactly nothing aside from succeeding in making their car look tacky. Believe in what? In who? Jesus? Buddha? Allah? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

It is a small thing, perhaps, but it seems to me to be just another example of the descent into the postmodernist milieu.

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Passing the Plate: A Good Idea?

As someone who values tithing, the tradition of “passing the plate” still always makes me uncomfortable. It is not that the two are necessarily contradictory, but it does seem to unnecessarily add social pressures to the act of giving to the church. Why should anyone see me give or not give when it is none of their business? On the subject of giving to the needy, Jesus commanded his disciples to “be careful not to do [their] ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” and to “not let your left hand to know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be secret” (Matt 6:1-4). How does passing the plate, or any other form of giving that requires one to act publicly, comply with this?

I have heard that churches that pass the plate see an increase in income than those that do not. But is increased giving over other churches that use more passive methods really better if it is in any way compulsory? “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 8:7). If there is higher giving in churches that pass the plate (because they pass the plate), then it is for either of two reasons: 1.) people’s laziness has engulfed them to the extent that they will only give when the option is literally placed in their lap, in which case their main priority is not giving to the church, but appealing to their own laziness, or 2.) they give as a result of perceived social pressures. I spoke to someone yesterday who said that her father (a non-Christian) will give, but only if the plate comes to him, because he feels compelled to do so. The church should not want his money because he is hardly a “cheerful giver.” The intention of passing the plate might not be to compel people to give, but it is nevertheless perceived in such a way by those to whom the plate is passed.

I maintain that even with the use of checks or some other method, which may conceal the actual amount given, it is no one else’s business to observe whether one gives anything on a particular occasion or not. Even people who otherwise would not care cannot help noticing who does and does not contribute something to the plate. Why insist on making people do it publicly when there are alternatives?

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice of passing the plate, but even if the intent is not to pressure people, even subtly, to give by putting them “on the spot,” so-to-speak, it still seems inappropriate to me, given that we are commanded to give in secret and without compulsion. Provide people with a way to give that doesn’t require them to be seen by others.

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Zombies, Wine, and Chrisitian Music

(This post was not written by me: http://gungormusic.com/2011/11/zombies-wine-and-christian-music)

When you are in a touring band, there is a lot of time that is spent waiting. Waiting to board a plane, waiting for the bus to arrive at the venue, waiting for sound check…etc One of the many games that people in our band have implemented now and then to fill the waiting time is a little game we might call the “Christian or secular” game. Basically the game is simply playing a very short clip of music and having someone guess whether it is “Christian” or “secular” music. The person who is most accurate with his or her guesses is the winner.

This is surprisingly easy to do.

Especially when you talk about radio stations. It is easy for me to spot a Christian music radio station within about 3 seconds. Far before any Christian lingo is uttered to make it clear.

It’s weird. I’m always trying to figure out what it is that makes something sound like Christian music, because there’s definitely something… I’d love to get some of your thoughts about it. But for me (and I’m actually one of the better players of the game if I must say so myself), I find something very disingenuous about most Christian music. This is something I can simply feel at a gut level. If I hear a song, and I hear any sort of pretending or false emotion, that’s a good first indicator. I’m really not trying to throw mud here, I’m being honest at how I am good at this game. Christian music often has a sheen to it that other music doesn’t have. Some pop and country music has a similar sheen, but the Christian sheen is like a blander sheen somehow.

The vocals are always really hot in the mix because for Christian music, the words are the most important part. That’s kind of similar to country though as well, so you have to be careful there. Country has some of the same Nashville tones, players, and compression styles that Christian music has most of the time, but the twang is just a little deeper with the country side of things. There’s also a little more “humanness” or “soul” in Country to my ears.

The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the kind of emotions in singing that lyric that would lead to that style of singing. It’s that same kind of creep out that you feel when somebody gives a really loud fake laugh. It’s just weird and uncomfortable feeling.

An example of this would be a song that somebody sent us recently of an older song of mine called “Wrap Me In Your Arms.” The lyric is a very intimate and soft sort of lyric. “Take me to that place where I can be with you, you can make me like you…etc” This person did a hardcore/screamo version of this song. Not just like getting a little loud, I mean full out death metal sounding, demon-voiced screaming. It was so freaking weird mostly because it seemed so disingenuous. You would never speak such gentle words to someone you loved by screaming in their face like you were possessed by Beelzebub. That’s an extreme example, but it’s very typical of the basic premise of most Christian music to me, which is–use whatever musical style you wish as a medium to communicate your message. It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. So use whatever tools and mediums you have at your fingertips to do so. If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language. The problem with this is that emo music is not simply reducible to certain sounding tones and chords. There are emotions and attitudes of different genres of music that are the soul of the music. You can’t remove the anger from screamo and have it still be screamo. It’s the soul of that music, whether that soul is good or evil is not the point, simply that it is the soul. So when you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more “positive” lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie.

It looks like a human.. It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses it’s human body for its own purposes.

This is what I initially feel when I play the “Christian or secular” game. I look into its eyes, and I perceive whether the thing has a soul or not. And 9 times out of ten, I can do it very quickly and efficiently.

Why is this like this? I don’t know, and it makes me very sad. I don’t hate all Christian music. There are a few artists that I know in the Christian industry that are really trying to transcend the inherent limitations and zombying effect of the industry. But the industry as a whole is broken, friends. We call it Christian, but it’s certainly not based in Christianity. It is based on marketing. That’s it. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true.

Example:

We just were part of one of the biggest tours of the fall in the Christian music industry. To my knowledge, every night but one night was sold out, and that’s because they added a second show in the same city kind of last minute. The interesting thing about this tour was that it was pretty much in all mainstream venues. Clubs, theatres…etc It was awesome.

But you know what made me sad? That empty bar every night.

Even though these shows were all sold out, I would imagine that the bartenders at all those clubs were like “oh man, Christian night… that means no tips for me.”

Sometimes the promoters would just buy out the bar so there wouldn’t be any liquor sales at all.
I’m not saying that I wished that everybody was getting hammered at the show… But for crying out loud, buy one beer. Or heck, if you don’t drink beer, buy a Coke.

But here’s what is super weird about this situation. I bet you if you took all of those Christians that came to the shows and split them up and had them go to “secular” shows, A LOT of them would have bought a drink. It’s the fact that there is this assumption among all of the Christians there that having a drink at a Christian event is sort of a questionable thing to do.

Why is this?

It’s certainly not because of the Bible. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding. And not just any wine. The kind of wine that made people think they saved the very best wine until the end. And you preachers who pervert the scriptures with your own extremely biased interpretations, here’s a news flash, people at parties don’t think the best wine is non-alcoholic grape juice. Religious people didn’t call Jesus “a glutton and a drunkard” because he ate communion loafers and grape juice all of the time.

Sheesh. It’s just so ridiculous to me.

And here’s the thing. I don’t even drink very much. I’ve never really been drunk, and I’m not advocating that people should just be foolish with their drinking or eating habits. But for crying out loud, this whole spiritualizing of alcohol being an inherently bad thing is so annoying. It’s mostly just an American thing, by the way (as well as places where America has exported these ideas with our missionaries). If you go most other places in the world, or anywhere else in history for that matter, Christians drink alcohol. Ever heard of a little thing called Communion? You know, the bread and the wine? That’s a pretty big deal in Christianity. Jesus didn’t pour out a cup of grape juice.

Man alive.

You know what the alcohol thing is based on? You ready for this? You sure?

Money.

Old people are the people that give the most money to Christian organizations like religious media outlets. And old people grew up in a time where alcohol was seen as a taboo social reality. Just like dancing or playing cards or “mixed bathing” (swimming). It’s based in an era of prohibition. These are old American values that we’re dealing with, not Christian values. It’s the old American people that have money that the Christian organizations do not want to offend. So they create an environment where drinking is seen as evil. If you want to start a television ministry, you can’t have it known to your donors that your staff likes to go out for drinks after work. So you implement rules for them. Do you know how common this is? I have friends that have lost their jobs over crap like this.

Do you see the irony of this? If you had been a disciple of Jesus and drank some of the wine of his first recorded miracle with him, you would be fired from a lot of the churches in this country. Shame on us.

So the point? (I haven’t forgotten) The point is that the industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing then Christianity. They are marketing to the mixed bag of values that has created the Evangelical Christian subculture. It’s a mix of some historically Christian values, some American values, and a whole lot of cultural boundary markers that set “us” apart from “them.” This sort of system makes us feel safe and right, and it makes some of its gatekeepers very wealthy and powerful.

The effect is then the filtering down of this subculture to people that don’t necessarily want to think through the viability of every one of these boundary markers, but in their simple desire to belong to what they consider the good guys, they acquiesce to the rules handed to them. At least in public. As the joke goes, why do you take two Baptists with you when you go fishing? Because if you only bring one, he’ll drink all your beer.

Here are some of the actual effects of this subculture though.

1. It makes us dishonest

When the foundation of the market and music you are trying to make is pretense, it’s very hard to be honest and successful. There is an unspoken assumption from most of us that we really want the people on the stage or on the book or album cover or on the radio need to have it together more than we do. Because we are messed up, we need them to be a sort of savior and hope for us. The result of this is that it’s often the people who are really good at pretending that they have it all together that make it to the stage and the book or album cover and the radio stations.

So Christians that would normally buy a beer don’t because they are in the Christian concert. Christian bands that smoke (which a lot of them if not most of them do, including some of my players) have to duck into back alleys as to not offend anybody. I think smoking is stupid. But I think it’s stupid because it smells bad and it kills you. I don’t use my religion to judge other people about it.

Rather than just being honest about where we are at and what we all struggle with though, we look to our gatekeepers to believe and live morally vicariously for us. That way we feel better about being part of the system of good, and the moral brokenness in our own lives is repressed like the fear of a child with her security blanket.

This sort of dishonesty is at the heart of much of what I and so many others find so repulsive about much of modern American Christendom

2. It kills creativity

I had a conversation with John Mark McMillan last night about something that I think is very interesting. By the way, I consider John Mark to be one of the ones I consider to be making a valiant effort in transcending some of these imposed limitations in this industry. But he mentioned to me how strange it is that people keep calling his new album “creative.” That word is actually one of the most used words when people describe our music as well. In fact, I bet some of you reading this have described as such. Here’s the weird thing about this…
Why do you find it necessary to say that?

Do you notice that nobody really uses that word about other types of music? I just was perusing some Itunes user reviews to see if this holds up. I checked John Mark and mine, and “creativity” is very often found. But it’s not often found in reviews of bands like Sigur Ros, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens or other artists who are certainly very “creative.”

Nobody goes to an art gallery and says, “boy, that painting is so creative.” Why? Because it’s art! Of course it’s creative! Why else would it be there? It’s very nature is creativity. Or like Lisa pointed out to me today, “that would be like saying, I love your house, it’s so architectural.”

But when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like “holy crap, listen to how creative it is!”
It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, “wow, look at how clean her face is! She doesn’t even have any blood on it or anything!”

I’m not slamming the people that describe our music as creative. I appreciate the kindness that’s behind the words, but it does make me sad that the idea of creativity is so foreign to our industry that we have to actually point it out when someone actually sees the art as art and not zombie propaganda. Ok, that might have been a little much. But I like the sentence so I’ll leave it.

So that’s why I’m good at the Christian or secular game. I’ve seen behind the curtain, and I know the little man that’s pulling the levers, and he’s not impressive. I recognize his voice at this point, and it’s all over religious media.

Why am I writing this blog?

Some of you have commented in the past when I’ve been critical of the Christian music industry that I’m being hypocritical by still being a part of it. I don’t see it that way. I actually love a lot of the individual people in the industry. There really are some amazing people in it, many of who share my weariness about the way things have been. And I also love you guys. I love our fans. I love the people that we get to meet and I love being able to get our music to them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to purify the systems that we are part of. I just want to be honest about what I see and call us to find better ways of doing things.

Two quick recommendations and I’ll stop this blog that has already gone on WAY too long:

Consumers: I would suggest that you actively support those artists that you love that the industry hasn’t necessarily bought into. The cards are stacked against people that actually want to do honest creative art in this industry, and the people that try really need your direct help and support to have any chance. For us, we’ve had one guy for instance that has been sending us a check every month for years because he appreciates what we are trying to do. Do you know how much that one family has helped us stay encouraged? Even if it’s not a huge amount of money or anything, just having people behind you in this sort of battle is really helpful.

Industry people: Stop being so afraid. I know you want things to be different than they are as well. I know you want creativity to be valued as much as “Becky” analysis, but we need some of you to have some balls and make some decisions based on that value system. Yes money matters. But so does beauty. Art actually makes a difference in the world. Have the courage to actually make decisions on values and not simply on past numbers and trends. And for crying out loud, if it really is good, the numbers will follow eventually anyway.

Artists: Take heart. I think the tides may be turning. The recent attention and success of our band speaks to it I think. People are growing weary of the status quo. The machine and its sheen have seen its strongest days. So I encourage you as well to not be afraid. Your art is worth making even if the industry around you isn’t quite ready for it yet. Make it and let them catch up with you. Your art is sacred. Be honest. Be brave. And don’t let the markets or the industry be the final filter on your art, let your heart do that. Ok that’s all from me tonight.

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The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

Writing Letters

There are seemingly very few advances, technological or otherwise, that are genuine advances in every respect, since often a great increase must be achieved at the expense of something else. For photography, we sacrificed painting; for television, books; for America, lives; and, in the case of email and cell phones, we have largely sacrificed meaningful correspondence with each other. The reasons for the decline in letter-writing are as numerous as they are obvious, given the momentum of undeniably practical communication technology, and there are no signs of (and perhaps no widely compelling reasons for) its return. In speaking of ‘letter-writing’ I do not mean to refer to the still common practice of taking a family photo, scribbling a greeting on the reverse, and mass-mailing it to all one’s acquaintances during the holiday seasons. No, I mean the arguably old-fashioned habit of penning intimate letters, sometimes of significant length, to one’s friends and family. Perhaps my use of the term ‘lost’ in the title is too hasty a judgment, but whether or not the practice has actually undergone a full interment is beside the point.

One might well argue that it is now quite unnecessary and impractical to take the time to write a lengthy letter (or even a letter at all) when such more practical methods exist which allow greater frequency in a given correspondence; and as to its impracticality, I would readily agree. But it can only be considered unnecessary if one is willing to forfeit the obviously great significance of a hand-written letter. We fool ourselves into thinking that that which is ‘practical’ is ‘best,’ but unless the Pragmatists are correct, this could not be further from the truth. For if it were true that there is nothing to be gained in the sacrifice of the practical, then a rejection of every obsolete and inefficient practice would form the basis for a philosophy very much like Pragmatism; and yet anyone who has made even a small sacrifice for the sake of someone else implies that he believes there is such a thing as Good and that it is not synonymous with Efficiency. In light of its utter impracticality, the effort to write each other should perhaps be granted a promotion. For a friendship conducted on the basis of practicalities is a friendship in name only; and I am loathe to think of what joy I would be deprived if, instead of an hour’s conversation, my closest friends should always decline in favor of mopping the floor.

An increased rarity and impracticality have imbued personal letters with an even further significance: a significance which, I think, is not often taken for granted, but as yet has proven to be an insufficient motivator, since even a prevailing sense of gratitude in receiving a warm letter from a friend is usually not enough to induce us into action. This is certainly as true of me as of anyone else, for in lamenting the decline of the practice I am merely making myself out to be a hypocrite. Like the Apostle, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Rom 7:15).” Though the success of any sort of relationship is, of course, not predicated on a particular medium of communication, it seems to me wholly naive to think that in refusing to write letters we are not depriving ourselves of something truly beneficial (if not beneficial, at least something pleasant). A hand-written letter carries with it an undeniable and irreplaceable meaning, and there are things we tend to write by hand that otherwise would remain unsaid. I have received meaningful emails and text messages, all of which I greatly appreciate; but if asked to choose between my ever-revolving inbox or my dusty drawer full of ‘war’ letters, I should take the latter in an instant and without the least tinge of regret.

Much of what we know about history and the persons involved, their motivations, perceptions, and feelings, is borne out in their diaries and letters to each other, and that a whole generation or series of generations should be generally devoid of such kinds of records is regrettable; but the lack of records is not the real loss. Rather, it is the intangible deficit in our interactions with each other. I agree with Lewis that “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).” If friendship gives value to survival, letter-writing almost certainly gives value to friendship, and the diminishment of the practice should succeed only after our greatest efforts to resist it.

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Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.

1.) Who made God?

This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.

In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.

This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:

1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2.) The universe began to exist.

3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).

Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.

2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.

Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.

3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.

I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:

1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.

2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.

An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.

4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.

This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”

5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.

This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.

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On Atheism and Evil

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

So writes atheist and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion.

 Reveling in Mr. Dawkins’ scathing wit, and brandishing such quotes as weapons, devoted followers of the “New Atheism,” as it has been called, seek to vociferously evangelize the masses sheepishly duped by the trappings of religion. The charges against religion, and Christianity in particular, are copious in number, and if the whole were to be distilled, the remainder would be a weighty moral indictment. The gist of Dawkins’ above remarks, and indeed the bulk of the allegations leveled at Christianity, are that God, the Bible, Christianity, Christians or all four are not just false, but are in some way evil.

One could say (quite rightly, I think), that Dawkins’ affections for religiously-inclined persons are minimal at best. However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction. In light of this, two serious problems inevitably arise.

First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. By “objective moral values” I mean moral values that are binding whether or not anyone believes in them. For if moral values are ultimately subjective or relative, then all moral allegations are reduced to mere opinion and thus become as trivial as one’s preference for, say, a particular flavor of ice cream. But Dawkins’ is not simply stating eloquently his dislike for the God of the Bible. He means that if God does exist and did in fact do the things alleged in the Old Testament, God is therefore wrong on moral grounds.

But on what basis can Mr. Dawkins make this claim if he intends to refer to something more compelling than his own personal opinion? In making the claim that God is evil, one assumes, naturally, that there is such a thing as evil. If one assumes there is such a thing as evil, then he assumes there is such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then there must be a Moral Law by which to differentiate between good and evil. If there is such a thing as a Moral Law, there must be a Moral Law-Giver in which such a Law is grounded.

Regarding morality’s objectivity, even many atheists acknowledge the necessity for a transcendent Authority. J.L. Mackie, a vehement anti-theist, writes:

We might well argue…that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of ordinary events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Reflections on Meaning in Life Without God.” The Trinity Journal, 9 NS, 1984, p. 14).

Those wishing to dispute the notion that a Moral Law-Giver is necessary for the existence of objective moral values must justify their position. Dawkins, while obviously rejecting the existence of God, provides no such justification anywhere in his writings and therefore implicitly accepts all the premises but insists on rejecting the conclusion. In effect, he borrows from theism in an attempt to prove it false!

G.K. Chesterton summed up this contradiction in his book Orthodoxy:

“But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Thus, as a matter of intellectual consistency, the atheist must provide a basis for objective moral values before he may level the barrels of morality at Christianity (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, far from attempting such a justification, Dawkins manages to cut off the very branch upon which he sits, saying:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p.133)

If “there is, at the bottom…no evil,” then just what does Dawkins mean by describing God in such a way as to imply that He is evil? Dawkins’ moral outrage seems incoherent and pitifully insignificant given his view that we live in a world of “blind, pitiless indifference.” In the absence of an appeal to a Moral Law, why should anyone regard Dawkins’ indictment as having any authority whatsoever? Again, is there such a thing as an objective good and an objective evil or not? Atheism, not just Dawkins, leaves us completely devoid of a coherent answer.

Second, the view that it is even possible for God to be evil is itself rather puzzling. The Christian view is that God is an omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful, morally perfect, self-existent, personal, necessary, being. In essence, God is the greatest conceivable Being. If, however, for the sake of argument, Dawkins assumes this view of God for his critique, what then does he mean by implying that God is evil? If God is, indeed, the greatest conceivable Being, then it is manifestly impossible for God to be subject to anything else, including, in this case, a Moral Law external to His nature. For if God were subject or subservient to some external Moral Law, then He would not be God, since He would therefore cease to be the greatest conceivable Being. Given this consideration, Dawkins is faced with the problem of explaining how his own moral judgment might have any credibility when the object of his criticism is the God of the universe.

However, if Dawkins does not assume for the sake of his argument that the God of the Bible exists, then at whom, and by what authority, is he directing his diatribe? For if God does not exist (as it is clear Dawkins believes), then one is again faced with the irksome difficulty of objective moral justification. It seems Dawkins is at an impasse: If God exists, moral values must necessarily be grounded in His nature, and attempts to criticize his nature fall resolutely flat. If God does not exist, moral values are merely subjective and any moral judgments are reduced to utter trivialities. Many atheists correctly seem willing to admit the latter.

Though in conversation the admission of morality’s relativity is often readily made for the sake of its apparent consistency with an atheistic framework, one may rightly wonder at the expeditious nature of the outcry the moment that same person has experienced some perceived injustice. A man who has just been beaten and robbed does not simply shrug his shoulders, dust himself off, and proceed to go about his business in the knowledge that we live according to forces that may ultimately be characterized as blind, pitiless, and indifferent. No, there is instead an instant appeal to a sense of moral ought-ness which has just been violated. The argument is wholly inconsistent with the action. This is precisely the contradiction identified by Chesterton. That the action (or reaction), the sense of having been wronged, is always involuntary is a fact that should be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by materialists (I say “materialists” because there exist atheists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural). Whence came such an innate moral conscience? What do the irrational forces to which materialists claim everything can be reduced have anything to do with a sense of moral ought-ness, whether perceived or real? While such a sense may certainly be affected by social pressures, the fact that it exists at all cannot reasonably be attributed to social cultivation. Young children who have not yet had exposure to the greater social sphere, nor possess the faculties enabling them to receive moral indoctrination, nonetheless exhibit the same basic sense of moral ought-ness as their parents. A child who has been taught nothing of stealing knows precisely when he has been stolen from.

Atheists bothered by both the prospect of accountability to a transcendent Moral Authority and by the alternative, a universe consistent with Nietzche’s nihilism, wholly void of any objective moral standard, have attempted the singular argument for morality’s objectivity without the postulation of a divine Authority. The attempt proves upon inspection to be rather unsubstantial, though its underlying motivation, the attempt to have the Good without the nuisance of accountability, should not inspire surprise. To suggest, for instance, that qualities universally regarded as “good” (justice, love, mercy, generosity, etc) simply exist of their own accord is but to beg the question. Without any situational context, what does it even mean to say that the abstract quality of “Justice” simply exists as a positive entity? How is this even possible? If materialism were true, a particular moral value would not be objective even if every person that had ever lived affirmed the goodness of it. For if there remains even the logical possibility of a single dissenter that particular moral value is inescapably subject to relativity. Therefore, in order for moral values to be objective, they must necessarily be grounded in something greater than human perception or understanding.

One must consider, then, just what kinds of things could even possibly serve as a ground for objective moral values. It seems obvious that the category of possibilities will inevitably be exceedingly limited. Human opinion has already been eliminated. As has been mentioned, and J.L. Mackie affirmed, objective moral values are at least reasonably grounded in the nature of God. If this is so, then objective moral values must necessarily be grounded in something very much like God, if not God himself. If, however, the materialists are correct, and all the goings-on in the universe can ultimately be attributed, at bottom, to irrational, material forces, we seem to be out of options, given that anything remotely identifiable with the concept of a Divine Being cannot possibly exist. If there is one thing of which we may be certain, it is that objective moral values are not reasonably the product of material forces. If somehow they were, why should anyone feel compelled to adhere to them? And if they are not, then materialism is false. But if materialism is false, and objective moral values are in some way transcendent of the material world, is it not but a reasonable step to conclude that they are grounded in the nature of God?

The moral indictments frequently wielded against Christianity are therefore without a legitimate starting point. If the atheist wishes to be able to use morality as a point of argument in his critique, he must first establish the objectivity of his claims or else abandon them to the realm of the inconsequential.

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“Good” Christians

What does it mean to be a “good Christian?” This is a phrase I occasionally hear in the south, and every time it makes me cringe just a little because it isn’t really clear to me just what it actually means. It seems most often used when someone is publicly declaring why they aren’t going to take part in a particular bad action (“…because I’m a good Christian”). But this seems silly. Why declare that you’re not going to do something you know to be wrong? Why not just silently refrain from doing it? Why distinguish yourself as a “good Christian” as opposed to….the other kind? I suppose the reason this irritates me so much is that it seems to be part of a culture that makes a special effort to project a certain image: that of a “good” person. But the irony of that endeavor is that if one does what they know to be right, their actions will speak for them and they need not bother trying to project an embellished facade.

Besides, one whose motivation for doing good is rooted in a concern for their own image is really no good at all, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The matter of importance is not the condition of our reputation but that of our heart, and attempts to manufacture our reputation without addressing the condition of our heart is like treating the symptoms before the actual disease. If one’s heart is in Christ, he will, by God’s grace, be compelled to do the good works it is impossible for him to do otherwise. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:26).” Why? Because a true faith in Jesus manifests good works as a result. In this sense, the sense in which the Holy Spirit is at work in us, all Christians are “good,” not by anything wrought of our own hands, but we are made good by the Perfection of the One whom we serve, and the use of the term is, at best, an unnecessary redundancy.

I suppose, however, one must first ask what it means to be a Christian. After all, we’ve seen those with blatantly partitioned lives, who seem to have worked switching between their “good Christian” act and their “bad” act into a science; And if Christianity is based on adhering to a set of rules, then it seems to me that the term “good Christian” is perfectly acceptable, given that some people are better rule-followers than others.

But adhering to a set of rules isn’t Christianity at all: it is Islam (“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward,” Surah 5:9). By contrast, Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Galatians 2:16).” It seems very much the case that many people touting the Christian label, or even the coveted “good Christian” label, are in the practical outworking of their faith much more suitable followers of Allah than of Jesus, trying to check all the appropriate boxes on an exam for entry into heaven we’ve all already failed. The term “good Christian” reeks pungently of legalism, and it comes across to me as an attempt to let others know: “I do bad things, but I’m still a good person (whatever that means); And good people go to heaven.” If good people go to heaven, if good people even exist (Psalm 14:3), then I’ve got the wrong Bible.

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The Road to Progress?

While skimming the local newspaper this morning, my attention was arrested by a list of local public schools and their corresponding School Performance Scores (SPS). For anyone who values education, the scores were abysmal. While in most cases there were slight increases in SPS from 2010 to 2011, the letter grades representing the schools’ final score were enough to make one cringe. The list was rather objectively titled “The Road to Progress,” but I wondered whether it was as a result of an acknowledgement of the pitiful state of Louisiana’s education system that the author had not, in a spirit of greater positivity, titled the article “On the Road to Progress;” Perhaps it was merely for lack of space.

Louisiana is embarrassingly and unquestionably in the lowest tiers of public education in the United States and has been for quite some time. The question is not, then, where Louisiana falls in the ranks or how to find ways to justify moving it up a few notches on the scale, but, rather, what to do about the problem. Is the fact that Louisiana’s school system is failing to adequately educate its students a result of lack of funding? (I am certain there are areas in which more funds would be beneficial.) Is it a result of a lack of state or federal programs? (This is doubtful.) Is it the result of unqualified teachers? (In some cases, perhaps.) But I would maintain that the source of the problem is found in none of these things. Instead, it is the result of a state of affairs far more terrible, infinitely more daunting, than even the combination of these other issues. That is, the dreadful reality that students are largely part of a culture that is, at worst, antagonistic to learning and, at best, apathetic about it; And it is not the students who are to blame, but the parents.

In speaking with a woman who teaches at one of the local high schools, she indicated that while her direct frustration is dealing with apathetic and unruly students in the classroom, the greater disappointment lay in the fact that the parents are, almost without exception, just as indifferent in regards to their children’s education as the children are to their own. Recently, a parent-teacher conference was held at her high school. Not a single parent arrived on behalf of any of her students. For teachers whose true motivation is to see their students learn, this is a seemingly insurmountable problem, one that is understandably de-motivating in the most profound way: teaching students, often with great difficulty in the process, to actually value learning, only to have them taught the reverse at home.

As is quite obvious, parents apathetic about their child’s education tend to be apathetic in other areas as well, such as discipline, and teachers who would otherwise prefer to spend time helping students learn the material instead find themselves performing a role more akin to that of riot police. Ideally, teachers should rarely have to take disciplinary measures, since any actions in that vein should merely be reinforcements of that with which the children are already being inculcated at home. But the world of the ideal is not the one in which we live, and teachers are being forced to perform the dual role of parent and teacher at the great expense of the child’s education. The sentiments I would like to express to these parents, at least in the way I feel like framing them, are not fit for print.

Motivating students to learn has enough difficulties of its own, but how does one encourage parents to reject a dispassionate attitude? Is it even possible on a large scale? Throwing money at the problem, creating new initiatives, new programs, seem like far too simplistic solutions to a deeply-rooted and complex issue that has far more to do with philosophy than it does financial and bureaucratic deficits. I wish that I could here begin my neatly-outlined Three-Point-Solution plan, but I have none; the problem is immense, and I have only just considered it. But a clear understanding of the problem is at least the first step to true progress, and in Louisiana there is much room for it.

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A Matter of Common Decency

As those of you who keep an ear to the ground are by now well aware, there is currently a considerable buzz over the Cordoba Institute’s plans to build a mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans, headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, are to turn the old Burlington Coat Factory building into a mosque, museum, and Islamic cultural center, costing upwards of $100 million. It seems unlikely anyone would dispute calling the plans to build such a facility so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks “ambitious,” but many would prefer the term “galling.”

The memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, particularly those who lost a friend or family member in the attacks, and it seems a blatant insult, a breach of common decency, even, to erect a structure of this nature in such proximity to the place where thousands died at the hands of Muslim extremists (or fundamentalists, depending on who you ask).

Those in favor of the mosque’s construction claim that the First Amendment protects the Cordoba Institute’s right to proceed with its plans. Indeed it does. What the First Amendment fails to do, however, is nullify the ill effects the construction of the mosque would undoubtedly produce. The First Amendment mantra has been so oft-repeated in defense of the most abrasive (abusive?) actions that those touting it have apparently become callous to the grave insensitivity of their words and deeds. This seems as true in this case as in the abhorrent protests of military funerals by the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. There is, in the minds of these “First Amendmentists,” if you will, a sense that “if it’s legal, it’s right.” Of course, for any person who believes in a morality transcendent of law, this is absurd (assuming sensitivity to the feelings of others is considered a virtue), but I digress.

It can be taken as certain that if the “Ground Zero Mosque,” as it has been called, is completed Muslims all around the world, and especially those responsible for 9/11, will regard it as a victory for Islam. For any Muslim who supported the attack, whether openly or privately, it will be an unquestionable stamp of divine approval to have a 13-story mosque tower over the rubble of what was formerly a powerful symbol of the West’s success. Mr. Rauf has condemned the terrorist attacks, but the sincerity of his condemnation seems inversely proportional to his committment to proceed with the project against the wishes of those still grieving the attacks.

In light of the commonplace over-emphasis on political correctness these days, the amount of surprise I would express in learning that the mosque had been completed in the future would be…well, low. However, there is a not-so-subtle irony in the fact that only in a country where the freedoms of its citizens are valued could an undertaking such as this occur. I’m thinking of something quite different, of course, than the Islamic states in which Sharia law is legally enforced, where even verbal dissent from Islamic doctrines is met with punishments that make a Quentin Tarantino film look tame. Respect for views contrary to one’s own is a virtue seen only Islamic countries in which the fire of liberty has begun to kindle a flame bright enough to scorch the stiflingly oppressive traditions held by Muslims for hundreds of years. Such tolerance is unlikely the product of scholarly exegesis of the Qur’an or Hadith. If it were, it seems Muslims for the past several hundred years must have either failed to get the memo or manifestly ignored it. Yet Mr. Rauf will piggyback on the very principles of liberty and freedom absent in most Islamic states in order to advance a religion that detests them! I don’t blame him (who wouldn’t take advantage of such a great opportunity?), but I can’t decide whether to regard the move as cunning or appalling. I suppose it could be both.

Seeing as the construction of a mosque in this context is only possible under the freedoms protected by our Constitution, it would seem appropriate for Mr. Rauf to encourage the propagation of similar freedoms abroad in Islamic countries as an act of reciprocity. The chances of this occurring, however, are vastly outweighed by the likelihood that Mr. Rauf’s true desire, whether or not it is publicly espoused, is to see the world become an Islamic state, as do most Muslims. It is likely his current proclamations enjoining peaceful interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims are simply the most effective means to advance Islam in the current American context, whether or not there is at the heart of his message a true desire to see views contrary to Islam ultimately protected by law.

Mr. Rauf has been hailed as a moderate for his emphasis on peaceful co-habitation of Islam and other faiths, and he has even attempted to quell the uneasiness by reminding us that the center will house a memorial to those who died on 9/11, but there is nothing moderate about his insistence on continuing with a project that he surely knows will strike many as a barefaced assertion of Islamic power.

In the words of Mr. Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, who is the head of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), “Only in New York City is this possible.”

I hope she’s right.

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Post-Election Thoughts

Regardless of all the various affectations expressed at the election of our latest President, some of jubilation, some of despair, one fact remains: Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States of America. The American people have spoken. This fact, regardless of whatever emotion it happens to evoke, is one that we must accept.

However, in all the various remarks I have encountered concerning the election, there is one underlying notion in many of them that I deem to be rather peculiar. It is that there seems to have been expressed a tremendous amount of exultation over the fact that “history has been made,” in that Obama is the first black President of the United States. It is as if people regard “making history” as somehow inherently good.
A particular event is not good simply because it is unprecedented, for certainly there have been unprecedented events that “made history” and yet undeniably mar our past. This present moment in history can only legitimately be regarded as “good” if Obama indeed proves to move America in a positive direction. And yet there are some, especially within the black community, who, seeing in this man some sort of iconic representation of delivery from a perceived oppression, base their joy in his election solely on his color. The race of the President should have absolutely nothing to do with his election, and yet, as is quite obvious, some have expressed an almost religious devotion to “making history” by electing the first black President. This, my friends, is both absurd and naive. Being President of the United States isn’t a right – it’s a privilege that should be granted only in the presence of those qualities that, observed under close scrutiny, the American people deem necessary for leading a nation.

My main point is this: setting a precedent is not inherently good. Thus, only in retrospect can such judgments truly be made. Time will eventually grant us the means necessary to look back upon this moment in history and declare with some degree of certainty whether or not the unprecedented election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was a great achievement or a disastrous mistake.

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